Our Western culture has assigned Jesus the role of personal savior. The one who died for our sins and rescued us from the wrath of God for what Adam and Eve did.
When coming face to face with fundamentalist Christians, we’re often confronted with the pointed question, “Do you believe that Jesus died for your sins?”
Depending on our answer, we’re either out or in.
For this, we can thank Paul — formerly known as Saul of Tarsus. In his former life, he was a Pharisee and a type-a personality who was adamant about living the Jewish law to a T (which is how he could justify persecuting so many Christians). Saul had a guilty conscience, which he tried to assuage by living the Jewish law even more strictly.
But then, Saul had a profound conversion on the road to Damascus (as he was on the way to murder more Christians) where he was struck by the realization that he was forgiven and saved by Jesus (a few years after Jesus’s death).
We can also thank Augustine of Hippo for adding to this narrative of Jesus-as-savior when he drummed up the notion of original sin. He had the same kind of story: Dude with a complicated background who had a profound mystical conversion experience.
But then, as we humans do, we took this notion of Jesus as the light for our darkness and throughout history, blew it way out of proportion. We soon grew to see ourselves as being worthless scraps of dung until we proclaim Jesus as our savior.
I’m going to out myself as a heretic right now by saying that I’m in the camp with those who see this is a severely limited Western way of seeing Christianity. Because I have to think of all the people I’ve known (and merely known about) who identify as Sufi, atheist, Buddhist, Hindu, Muslim… I can’t believe that any of them are placed any lower (or higher) in this contrived ranking system with the divine.
So, how can I call myself a Christian when I don’t believe what some proclaim to be THE core tenet of Christianity? Because I see Jesus as a wisdom teacher more than just my personal savior.
And no, I’m not just some guy on the internet making this up. By looking outside of Western Christianity to that of the Near East (yes, where Jesus was from) and beyond, we see the Western view as a small slice of the pie that is Christianity.
As Cynthia Bourgeault so eloquently states in The Wisdom Jesus,
As the evidence begins to pour in from the other 270 degrees of the Christian circle, we begin to see that it is the West that holds the variant position. From the Gospel of Thomas and the Nag Hammadi collection in general, from the Syriac liturgies, from the African desert fathers and mothers, from Celtic poetry and Chinese ‘Jesus sutras’ the same sophiological message emerges. ‘Yes,’ says Jesus, ‘as I am, you, too, can and must become. I will be here to help you. But you must do the work yourself.’ Whatever theological premises you may or may not choose to believe about Jesus, the primary task of a Christian is not to believe theological premises but to put on the mind of Christ.
Maybe you’re someone who threw out the whole Jesus thing thanks to this limited Western narrative of Jesus as savior. Maybe you think that’s the only way and it’s not your way, so adios Jesus.
But I don’t see ‘putting on the mind of Christ’ and seeing Jesus as wisdom teacher and giver of life as hurting anyone.
In fact, it just might change everything.